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Interview with Gustavo Cardoso
Free downloads should not be seen as a problem, but rather a business opportunity
December 2010 / By Cèlia Roca
Information and communication technology (ICT) has not only radically transformed human relationships, but also helped to form new cultural and leisure habits that provide additional fodder for an as yet unsettled debate. Questions regarding the free nature of multimedia content or the economic viability of the traditional media are today being asked everywhere, including academia, where they are the object of analysis and discussion. It is in this sphere of research where Gustavo Cardoso, visiting professor at the IN3 and professor of media, technology and society at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE), carries out his work. Former advisor on information society and telecommunications policy to the Presidency of Portugal and named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2008, he is also co-editor, with Manuel Castells, of the book Network Society: from Knowledge to Policy and, with Jeff Cole and Angus Cheong, of the book World Wide Internet. More recently, he has given a series of five seminars at the UOC looking at the challenges posed by media in the knowledge society.

E-learning based on ICT is increasingly common in the university and business spheres. How would you assess this trend?

There is an ideal model, and then there is reality. According to the ideal model of physical universities, everyone can take classes in person; however, that does not correspond to reality. In fact, students cannot always travel to classrooms, whether because they are working or for other reasons. E-learning offers a solution to this problem. Of course, this type of teaching sometimes relies on inferior-quality tools, which can leave students dissatisfied. However, that is not the case at the UOC, which has created technological platforms especially adapted to the knowledge it aims to transmit.

 

What other reasons led you to join the UOC's IN3?

One was my affinity for its other members, which goes back to previous research and projects in the sphere of new technologies. Also, at the IN3, I have the feeling of being somewhere where I can find postures and opinions quite similar to my own. This allows me to discuss and carry out projects that would not be possible at any other institution, such as those concerning the use of the Internet and ICT.

 

In the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. With the emergence of ICT, would you say that this statement still holds true?

That idea is tied to the culture and technology of the 20th century, when the most important form of media was television, along with radio and newspapers. With the Internet and the technological revolution, we have reached a point where that no longer makes sense: today, people are the message, because they are the ones with the power to adapt the message to any type of audience. Take YouTube, for example, where users can change the discourse of institutional and promotional videos by downloading and editing them. The media are now a platform that is part of our daily lives. We no longer limit ourselves to conceiving of them as something immutable.

 

Indeed, the director of the IN3, Manuel Castells, has also emphasised the key role of people as content generators. It looks like there is a challenger to the throne of traditional journalism...

In a world where so many people produce so much content, what really stands out is the fact that so much of this content no longer follows the traditional news format. This is also applicable to entertainment, where formats such as films and television shows have developed their own specific rhetoric. The people who generate this new content are no longer seeking to convince anyone to consume it, but rather to express and share their opinions. In this context, journalism will not disappear: it will continue to be present, but there will also be space for the new communicative products. The two will co-exist, but they will both have to meet the same challenge, namely: to be economically sustainable. To this end, we have to ask ourselves where people are going, as wherever they go, the advertisers will follow—for example, to Facebook or other websites.

 

You are deputy president of the Portuguese news agency LUSA. What would you say the future holds for that type of communication company?

Due to downsizing, media companies increasingly depend on news agencies for content. As a result, everyone is offering the same type of information. The audience—whom we might also call consumers or participants—notices this.

The agencies' future thus lies in offering innovative products, in experimenting with new formats. Every day, when they wake up, journalists should try to put themselves in their audiences' shoes, ask themselves how they can be useful to people. They need to shake the idea that the audience fits neatly into preconceived profiles. It is an extremely difficult but necessary exercise. Journalism is important for a democratic society.

 

ICT has also revolutionised access to another type of content: academic content. One of your seminars at the UOC addressed this phenomenon. Do you think that free access and copyright compensation for creators can be reconciled?

With very few exceptions, researchers do not engage in their work for the money, but rather in order to make a name for themselves amongst their peers and to contribute to science. Therefore, their priority is to share and exchange the knowledge they generate, particularly as there are no limits to scientific research: something new can always be added. This circumstance, along with the existence of the Internet, allows many people to publish their papers, such that they are no longer the exclusive purview of a small handful of institutions. Obviously, one could argue that it is not fair that one must pay to obtain this content, as not everyone has enough money to do so. Open access is a hot topic in the scientific community, and opinions are divided. In any event, researchers are adopting new online publishing strategies, thereby diversifying the media in which they disseminate their work. This also entails a change in the relationships of power in terms of who controls the dissemination of academic work, whilst at the same time increasing the means of dissemination. In my opinion, that is a good thing.

 

Perhaps the most controversial debate is that surrounding P2P applications for the free download of audio and video files. To paraphrase the title of another of the talks you have given: angel or demon?

We live in a world where people have Internet access and want to consume cultural products: music, films, television shows, etc. There is always someone willing to pay for this content, but most Internet users around the world today are not. Given this reality, one can bring the coercive power of the law to bear, but that is not enough: a cultural sea change is needed, as users do not feel like they are doing anything wrong. Since this is now standard practice in society, it must no longer be viewed as a problem, but rather a business opportunity. We must reinvent the way the process is monetised. In the long term, we cannot have a scenario where everything that is produced can be freely consumed, just as we cannot return to the earlier model, where online file sharing was negligible. The current system of free downloads will only change when the costs outweigh the benefits. At the same time, we likewise cannot create a world where Google only allows the free download of MP3s in certain countries. No one would understand that. Regardless, the issue is not whether P2P applications are good or bad. Things are not black and white: there are always shades of grey.

 

In short, where are all of these transformations taking us?

One thing that we can predict for sure is the disappearance of the current model of mass media. It will be replaced by network media. Both organisations and individuals will move within the framework of multimedia interpersonal communication, based on the simultaneous use of text, image and sound. Moreover, we will see what Manuel Castells has called mass self-communication, whose core is the individual.

 

There are many stakeholders: users, corporations, the media, universities, etc. Who will lead the change?

That is a tough question. I think that everyone should reflect on his or her role in this process. Probably, a society that is more critical of the media and companies is needed, and that cannot be achieved without the help of universities. It is not about ranking these stakeholders in order of importance, but rather understanding the interactions between them, because they will have to work together.

 

If it were up to you, what would you like this new context to be like?

I would like to see a world where journalism still played an important role and where everyone was well aware of the responsibility involved in living in an environment where we are all interconnected.

 

Profile

  • Visiting professor at the IN3.

  • Associate researcher and professor of media, technology and society at the Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology, Lisbon University Institute (CIES-ISCTE).

  • Collaborator with the Department of Communication at the University of Milan.

  • Collaborator with the Lisbon School of Communication and Media Studies (ESCS).

  • Deputy president of the Portuguese news agency LUSA.

  • World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2008.

  • Former advisor on information society and telecommunications policy to the Presidency of Portugal (1996-2006).

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